CALIFORNIA

Sheriff's Dept. higher-ups now appear to be targets in jails inquiry

It seems that federal prosecutors are after the "big fish" in L.A. County Jail obstruction-of-justice inquiry

Sheriff's officials convicted of obstructing a federal investigation into the Los Angeles County jails have been testifying before a grand jury as prosecutors set their sights on the highest echelons of the department, according to sources familiar with the probe.

The questioning has focused partly on meetings where then-Sheriff Lee Baca and his No. 2, Paul Tanaka, discussed how to deal with the discovery of a cellphone provided to a county jail inmate by the FBI. In addition to the convicted officials, some current Sheriff's Department officials have also received grand jury subpoenas.

Many in the Sheriff's Department believe that low-ranking officials took the fall for following orders from Tanaka and Baca. Now, with the convening of the grand jury, it appears that prosecutors are attempting to target more sheriff's officials after convicting seven last year for obstructing justice.

Of the seven, Gregory Thompson, a former lieutenant, and two ex-deputies, Gerard Smith and Mickey Manzo, are known to have testified before the grand jury in December, according to a source.

Most of the convicted officials, who received sentences ranging from 21 to 41 months, were scheduled to report to prison Jan. 2, but they remain free until a court rules on their bail requests as they appeal their convictions. None was ranked higher than lieutenant.

Tanaka testified in the trials of the seven officials, acknowledging that he was the subject of a federal investigation; Baca was not called to testify. A sheriff's captain, William "Tom" Carey, said at trial that he also was a subject of the probe.

Reached by phone Friday, Baca said that he was unaware that the grand jury was meeting and that he has not spoken to federal officials about the jails for years. He would not comment on the actions he took after he discovered that the FBI had infiltrated the jails.

"I don't think anyone knows what it's going to lead to," Baca said of the grand jury investigation. "I have no opinion one way or another."

Baca retired suddenly last January, and the 18,000-person department was led by an interim sheriff until Jim McDonnell took office in December.

Neither Tanaka nor his attorney, Ronald Nessim, responded to requests for comment. Tanaka retired from the Sheriff's Department in 2013 and still serves as mayor of Gardena. He ran for sheriff against McDonnell, losing by a large margin in the general election.

Carey was relieved of duty with pay in December due to an internal investigation, according to a Sheriff's Department spokeswoman, who declined to elaborate. He could not be reached for comment.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles had no comment.

The federal investigation originated with allegations of brutality and corruption against jail deputies. It branched off into obstruction of justice after sheriff's officials found the inmate's cellphone. The officials were accused of hiding the inmate informant under various aliases and threatening an FBI agent with arrest.

One former deputy, Gilbert Michel, pleaded guilty to bribery in connection with his smuggling the phone into Men's Central Jail. Another pleaded guilty to constructing an illegal firearm. Twelve others are awaiting trial on charges ranging from mortgage fraud to assaulting jail inmates and visitors.

Thompson testified before the grand jury for seven hours Dec. 17 and is scheduled to testify again Wednesday, according to a source.

Assistant U.S. Attys. Brandon Fox and Lizabeth Rhodes questioned him about Baca's and Tanaka's roles in meetings Aug. 19 and 20, 2011, which were convened to deal with the discovery of the cellphone, the source said.

According to the source, Thompson was also questioned about new rules the department adopted around that time for admitting investigators from other law enforcement agencies into the jails.

The grand jury appears to be focused on obstruction of justice and not other issues at the jails, sources said.

During last year's trials, witnesses said Baca was in charge of the Aug. 20 meeting, ordering his staff to launch a criminal investigation into the cellphone and to safeguard the inmate informant.

Tanaka testified at trial that he did not have a clear memory of many events but that the inmate was moved under false names for his own safety and to protect the Sheriff's Department's investigation into the smuggled phone.

Defense attorneys argued that their clients were "worker bees" complying with what they believed were lawful orders. Six of the defendants were convicted in July. Deputy James Sexton was convicted a few months later after a retrial.

Joseph Akrotirianakis, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, said high-ranking sheriff's officials could be prosecuted for having given orders to those already convicted in the case. But he said prosecutors will probably need more than the testimony of the convicted defendants, who have an incentive to cooperate, since their sentences could still be reduced.

"If you command someone to do it, and they do it, and you intended to have them do it, you're as guilty as they are," Akrotirianakis said.

Dane Ciolino, a professor of law at Loyola University in New Orleans and an expert on public corruption, said it is not unusual to see prosecutors begin with lower-ranking officials and work their way up.

"A lot of corruption cases are similar. It's the classic 'getting the little fish to get to the big fish' approach," Ciolino said.

Brian Moriguchi, president of the L.A. County Professional Peace Officers Assn., which represents Sheriff's Department supervisors, said the union has provided attorneys for some current sheriff's officials who have recently received grand jury subpoenas.

"It's my opinion," Moriguchi said, "that those responsible have not yet been held accountable."

cindy.chang@latimes.com

Twitter: @CindyChangLA

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